Every so often I hear an educator angrily dismiss the entire self-care movement because it is being presented as the easy, enjoyable, and seemingly magical solution for the giant problem of how our educational system treats its teachers.
~~Feeling stressed? Take a hot bath and you will feel instantly calm and relaxed. Bonus points for including scented candles!
~~Not enough time with your family? Just stop taking work home (as if it were just that easy).
~~Exhausted? Get more sleep, eat healthier foods, hydrate, and don’t forget to exercise!
~~Feeling like you are constantly being taken advantage of? Remind yourself that you can do hard things (even though those things should not even be part of your job).
~~Worried about how you will pay the bills because you are not appropriately compensated? Consider all the things you do have and make a list of things you are grateful for.
These suggestions can feel trite, patronizing, and just plain unattainable, given your overflowing to-do list. It can also feel like you, as an educator, should be able to employ these strategies to survive, and even thrive in a workplace that does not value you as a professional or in many cases, even as a person.
As if it is somehow your responsibility to do these things so that you can continue to teach and the real problems within the system never need to be addressed.
But of course, that is not true at all.
Self-care is in no way the answer to our systematically broken educational system. It is not your job to fix it. That responsibility falls to politicians and administrators. The fact that they are not living up to that responsibility does not mean it falls to you.
However, as an educator, you must exist within the current system, at least for now. Intentionally focusing on self-care can give you the tools you need to keep yourself physically and emotionally healthy, even within that system. Keeping in mind that:
- It’s not a substitute for professional support such as counseling or medication.
- It is in not the way to fix our broken educational system that does not value educators.
If you are still not convinced, consider this analogy. Imagine you are renting a house that leaks. Every time it rains, it leaks in at least 4 different places. Drip, drip, drip.
For a variety of reasons, you can’t move and the landlord refuses to repair the roof. In fact, instead of repairing the roof, the landlord gives you buckets to catch the leaking water.
You know that the buckets will not solve the problem of the leaky roof (even if the landlord tells you that they do). Nothing short of repairing the roof will fix that problem. But, of course, you still use them. The alternative is to let rainwater drip onto your couch, your kitchen table, your collection of vintage tea cozies, and whatever else you hold near and dear.
The buckets don’t solve the problem, but not using them makes the problem worse.
Self-care is the bucket that keeps everything from getting worse. It doesn’t solve the problem, it just helps you to survive in a broken system.
With that in mind, even those trite, patronizing, and seemingly unattainable suggestions may have value if you look at them through the lens of helping you to stay healthy and if you modify them to work for you.
So now that we know what self-care is not, let’s talk about what it actually is.
It can help to categorize the different kinds of self-care, and then decide what to prioritize. Self-care can be divided in a bunch of different ways (I have seen as many as a dozen), but I am going to keep things simple and use these 5 categories:
This is all about taking care of your body – eating nutritious food, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and moving your body. It also includes things like taking medication and going to the doctor. Of course, you will be healthier, have more energy, and feel better if you can maintain good physical self-care. But often the teacher lifestyle makes that challenging.
If you are struggling with this one, I would suggest prioritizing sleep. Getting enough sleep makes such a difference, both short and long term. It will help boost your mood, energy, and cognitive abilities. People who don’t get enough sleep are also more likely to eat more junk food. Further, chronically not getting enough sleep has been linked with poor memory, dementia, heart problems, and even shorter lifespan.
Once you have sleep down, try to level-up your diet. No big changes…you don’t have to go keto, fast for 3 days, or ban sugar from your diet, just make a few better choices each week.
This is all about keeping your mind active. Examples include reading a book (and yes, audiobooks and podcasts count!), solving a puzzle, playing a word game, or learning something new.
As a teacher, you are constantly learning new things. If you can find an enjoyable, mentally stimulating activity to incorporate into your life, by all means, go team go! But, if your brain is just plain wiped at the end of the day, the best self-care for you might be to give your brain a rest. Sometimes mindless TV or a video game will do you more good than trying to cram more into your overflowing brain.
This is all about how you process and feel about the world around you and how you feel about yourself. Journaling is a great way to drill down into emotions, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to journal, consider setting one small emotion-focused goal a week. For example, you could:
- Work on replacing one negative thought that you frequently think about yourself with a positive one. Use the negative thought as a trigger for the positive one.
- Replace the phrase, “I have to” with “I choose to.”
- Focus on one positive affirmation each day. Here is a list of 25 good ones from The Blissful Mind.
- Write 3 things you are grateful for each day (I know, making a gratitude list is the poster child for self-help, but it does work!)
- Keep a running list of wins – even small ones!
Spiritual includes any activity that nurtures your soul. Examples include praying or meditating, yoga, spending time in nature, and creative pursuits like art, music, and dance.
If you don’t already have a spiritual practice and you are feeling like you don’t have time to start one, try sitting quietly for 5 minutes. Just give your brain a rest and see what happens. If you struggle to sit still, try walking outside without distraction or doing something repetitive like knitting or folding laundry. You can also try one of the many apps available for a guided meditation like Calm, Insight Timer, or Headspace.
Social is all about connecting with others. For teachers, I think the main thing here is to make sure that not all your social interactions are work-related. Carving out time for friends outside of work and time with your spouse that does not involve kids or doing household chores is a worthwhile goal. Put it on the calendar and make it happen!
If you still don’t think you have time for self-care, here is a list of 50 Five-Minute Self-Care Ideas for Busy Educators.
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